Why Is the Pelvic Floor So Important?
The pelvic floor is a vital unit in both male and female bodies consisting of muscles and connective tissues that support numerous organs, including the colon, rectum, bladder, and reproductive organs.
It can be helpful to visualize the pelvic floor as a hammock-like sling that supports vital organs while working with our abdominal and back muscles to stabilize our hips and torso. Without a strong pelvic floor, we may struggle to walk or even stand upright.
What Does the Pelvic Floor Do?
The role of the pelvic floor is vital to our everyday functioning. It affects a wide range of essential human activities, including:
- Mobility. In the pelvic floor, our core muscles work together to stabilize and support our body throughout the day.
- Incontinence. The pelvic floor communicates with our nervous system to maintain the continence of urine and stool.
- Sexual arousal and orgasm. The pelvic floor is important for sexual activity, including sexual arousal and orgasm. Our pelvic floor muscles assist with elements such as blood flow and vaginal contractions. Research also shows that the pelvic floor can play a role in erectile dysfunction.
Many people are unaware of the indispensable role that their pelvic floor plays in day-to-day functioning. A weakened pelvic floor can lead to numerous issues that range from moderate to life-threatening, including:
- Hip pain
- Pelvic or tailbone pain
- Erectile dysfunction in men
- The ability to feel sexually aroused
- The ability to orgasm during sex
Pelvic Floor Dysfunction (PFD)
Considering that the pelvic floor supports urologic, gynecologic, and colorectal systems in the human body, it’s no wonder that a weakened pelvic floor can lead to complications. In some individuals, it can lead to a condition known as pelvic floor dysfunction.
Pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) is the inability to control the muscles of the pelvic floor. This can result in certain complications, such as recurrent pelvic pain, incontinence, or trouble emptying the bladder and bowel.
Causes of Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
The full spectrum of causes for PFD is still unknown, but known risk factors include:
- Obesity. Being overweight can put additional pressure on the pelvic floor muscles and may lead to dysfunction.
- Pregnancy. The pelvic floor is largely impacted by childbirth regardless of whether the birth is vaginal or cesarean. Pelvic floor muscles have to work extra hard during pregnancy and delivery to support the growing baby and can also be softened by pregnancy hormones.
- Traumatic injury. For example, if an individual is involved in a car wreck and sustains an injury to their abdominal or pelvic regions, such trauma can lead to PFD.
- Pelvic surgery. In some cases, pelvic-related operations can prevent pelvic floor muscles from functioning properly after the procedure, leading to PFD.
- Muscle overuse. This can occur if an individual uses the bathroom too often or engages in frequent muscle strain while doing so.
- Genetics. Studies suggest that our genes can play a part in the development of pelvic floor dysfunction.
Studies reflect a link between PFD and other conditions, including internal cystitis (a chronic bladder condition) and irritable bowel syndrome (a lower intestinal tract disorder). Generally speaking, having one condition may increase your risk of developing the other.
Symptoms of Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
Common symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction include (but aren’t limited to):
- Urinary incontinence. This refers to urine leakage during strenuous activity or movement, such as coughing, sneezing, or laughing.
- Pelvic organ prolapse. This is a serious condition entailing a heaviness or bulging sensation in the vagina. It occurs when organs drop from their proper positions.
- Bowel incontinence. This entails an inability to control the leakage of stool or gas.
Pelvic Pain Dysfunction in Women
According to a study by UCLA Health,1 in 3 women will experience pelvic pain dysfunction at some point in their lifetime. Of these, 30% will require surgery to remedy the issue.
Women are particularly impacted by pelvic floor dysfunction because the condition is strongly correlated to female-specific issues, such as:
- Pregnancy. Hormonal changes and the baby’s weight can be demanding on the pelvic floor muscles.
- Childbirth. Substantial vaginal stretching during labor and delivery can lead to vaginal and perineal tears, which in turn affects the mother’s pelvic floor muscles.
- Menopause and aging. The natural aging process entails a loss of skeletal muscle mass. During menopause, a woman’s estrogen levels drop, leading to the thinning vaginal, vulvar, and urethral tissues. Such occurrences can weaken pelvic floor muscles and, in some cases, lead to PFD in aging women.
Because weight gain is very common during menopause, the additional strain can further weaken the pelvic floor muscles and serve to worsen the problem that many women face.
Treating PFD in Women
In extreme cases of female pelvic floor dysfunction, surgery may be a helpful treatment to improve bowel or urinary incontinence. Common surgeries include:
- Vaginal wall repair
- Rectum or bowel support
- Bladder repair
- Hysterectomy (removal of the uterus)
- Sling procedure (to repair a prolapsed organ)
Less-invasive treatment options include physical therapy, pessaries, and certain medications (such as to relieve constipation or incontinence).
Pelvic Pain Dysfunction in Men
Naturally, the signs and symptoms of pelvic pain dysfunction vary between genders. While pregnancy and menopause are notable risk factors in women, pelvic floor dysfunction in men can result from prostate or pelvic surgery, recurrent heavy lifting, and even bouts of chronic coughing.
Similarly to women, men may also experience pelvic floor dysfunction as a result of obesity or frequent constipation.
Treating PFD in Men
Men with pelvic floor dysfunction can often benefit from the following treatments:
- Prescribed pelvic floor exercises
The above methods can help strengthen pelvic floor muscles in men, especially following a surgical procedure.
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